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[Read our interview with Common here]
One of the most unique and admirable qualities of Common’s rap career is the traceability of his personal growth through art. From the voice-cracking exuberance of his 1992 Can I Borrow A Dollar? debut, to the pensive but still playful Resurrection (1994), to the more mature One Day It’ll All Make Sense (1997) and Like Water For Chocolate (2000)—which earned him the dreaded Conscious Rapper™ tag—to the arguably Erykah Badu-influenced, carefree experimentation of Electric Circus (2002) and beyond, sequentially listening to his catalog reveals the natural evolution of the emcee’s beliefs and relationship with the world.
Self-awareness and enlightenment are central themes of Common’s recently released memoir Let Love Have The Last Word, as well as his twelfth (!) LP, Let Love. While not quite a companion piece or concept album, seven of its eleven songs contain “love” in their titles and abbreviated takes on the book’s motifs in their verses.
The second verse of sweet and mellow album opener “Good Morning Love” nobly evangelizes the benefits of therapy (“Escape rooms with glasses of wine / Just another crutch for my brokenness / A term that I got from my therapist / As a Black man, I feel I should be sharing this / In the hood they say we crazy and we derelicts / But we need it for our kids and our marriages / The old folks say ‘We don't do that’ / But taking care of self is the new Black”).
Pulling a sweet and mellow beat from J Dilla’s posthumous crates, “HER Love” is a spiritual successor to his infamously metaphorical 1994 single “I Used to Love H.E.R.,” but instead of lamenting rap’s ever-changing nature, he lovingly embraces how the art form has permanently and positively transformed his and others’ lives.
“Forever Your Love” is a sweet and mellow celebration of and dedication to his mother, while “Memories of Home” sweetly and mellowly meditates on how his pop’s physical absence led him to seek other masculinity models (“Weekend calls to my dad, I'd listen / Still I felt distant, distant like love / There's only so far that words could really hug / Didn't wanna be a thug, older niggas I banged with”), and how one of those models profoundly betrayed him (“An older play cousin, of course, I trust him / But he was touching where he wasn't supposed to be touching / What's a kid supposed to do? / When they going through / What I was going through / Don't know who to go to”).
Over the sweetly mellow chords and violins of “Show Me That You Love,” Common summarizes the story that serves as the memoir’s centerpiece: a late-night phone call from his daughter admonishing him for an emotional distance perhaps similar to the one he experienced from his own father. His voice is understandably subdued, but borders on lethargic when combined with the molasses-slow music. Compare with Nas’ “Daughters,” which tackled similar matters while maintaining a nod-worthy groove and impassioned cadence.
Album-ending “God Is Love” is a rumination on the intersection of—what else?—God and love, fittingly closing the set with a philosophical mission statement (“‘Love is love’ became the mantra, the montage for creation / We need it in relation / When two ships pass, one love is the flotation / It's what God used to put the planet in rotation / It's what the culture used to build a hip hop nation / From the basement to the attic, what Cookie showed for Magic / It's what we told the world when we said our lives matter / Turned the student to a master, hustler to a pastor / That's why I'm a rapper / It's all that I'm after”). It’s very sweet. It’s also mellow.
This lack of tempo variance throughout Let Love somewhat dulls the impact of the generally-pleasing live instrumentation provided by frequent collaborator Karriem Riggins. Though the sedate and jazzy arrangements are appropriately paired to the vulnerable subject matter, the LP is wanting for some bold energy blasts like Black America Again’s “Pyramids,” “Home,” or its title track.
“Leaders (Crib Love)” comes the closest to answering the call, with vibrant bass drums, scattershot cymbals, and undulating keys punctuating the spirited hometown tribute. Other tracks like “Hercules” and “My Fancy Free Future Love” would fit the bill, but are brought down by Common’s lackluster performances. Even with Swizz Beatz on the hook, the former’s most irritating component is the rapper’s stutter delivery and vocal tics, which harken back to his first album in all the wrong ways.
While this stammer technique spiced up the beginning of “The Light” back in 2000, on Let Love, it feels like a poor substitute for denser, more substantial rhymes. Several of the album’s verses feature a regressive, elementary flow that sounds like the off-the-head, “We heard you like to freestyle” raps he might kick for Ellen or whoever’s hosting Good Morning America these days.
The LP’s other major disappointment comes from an abundance of corny, shudder-inducing similes and metaphors. “You told me I’m the Mane like Gucci.” “Insecure like Issa.” “Can't copy sex, still you can bite me.” “But I'm just a cake, let me bake.” “I'm into fine things, like dining with fine things.”
Common is certainly to be applauded for his willingness to tackle difficult and fresh topics and to reveal as much of himself as he does over Let Love’s duration (even if it feels like CliffsNotes® versions of more detailed passages from the book). But commendable content and a right-placed heart can only carry one so far. Hopefully, his future musical endeavors will rightfully align his spiritual awakening with renewed vigor and lyrical prowess.
Notable Tracks: “Forever Your Love” | “Leaders (Crib Love)” | “Memories of Home”